‘Business must adapt to survive in the wake of coronavirus’

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THE coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, which first broke out in China’s Wuhan Province in December and has since spread to over 150 countries, has had devastating effects across the globe.
Close to 10 000 people have succumbed to the virus, while thousands others are infected daily as the world grapples to find a cure.
Covid-19 has impacted immensely on the global economy with the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) recently revealing that African countries, Zimbabwe included, have already lost US$28 billion due to coronavirus and are expected to have a reduction in economic growth this year from 3,2 percent to 1,8 percent.
Although Zimbabwe has not yet confirmed a case of the deadly virus, experts have warned that an outbreak in Zimbabwe could have devastating effects, not only on individuals, but also on the county’s ailing economy.
Daily News on Sunday reporter Sindiso Mhlophe last week sat down with Institute of Directors (IODZ) chairperson Mike Juru to discuss the implications of Covid-19 on businesses, how they can adapt and survive the pandemic, among other issues. Below are excerpts of the interview.

Q: Can you briefly tell us your views on Covid-19 as business?
A: The issue before us is about coronavirus and what it means for business. The virus is a danger to human existence and the rate at which it is spreading across the world is exponential and thus frightening.

As IODZ we have been assessing the positive and negative impacts that the pandemic may have on corporates.
What you need to understand is that there is a bright side and a dark side to everything.
Yes, we are losing lives which is very unfortunate and painful. But if we look at it closely, it’s pointing us towards issues to do with personal hygiene.
For instance, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is recommending that we wash our hands thoroughly or sanitise them frequently and avoid public gatherings.
These are issues that we should have been adhering to, but unfortunately people were relaxed and took such practices for granted.
So, as business we have noted the implications of this virus, not just on individuals, but business entities.

Q: What would you say are some of the potential threats that Covid-19 poses to business entities in the country?
A: The traditional way of doing business has never considered crowds as not acceptable, but with the advent of coronavirus the thinking has been transformed as many countries, including Zimbabwe, have moved to ban public gatherings of more than 100 people.

Although there is no confirmed case of the virus in Zimbabwe, leveraging on crowds to make money is no longer a viable option.
This is a threat to business entities which thrive on crowds, particularly those who work in the informal sector.
You can just imagine how difficult it will be for vendors at Mbare Musika to make money in case of an outbreak of the coronavirus in Zimbabwe.
The retail space is also now under scrutiny as people cannot be congested at the shops to purchase groceries and other necessities.
To add to that, as you know, most of our products in Zimbabwe are imported from neighbouring South Africa where over 110 cases of the virus have been confirmed.
The intensity of the virus in neighbouring South Africa could have ripple effects on the importation of goods to Zimbabwe, thereby affecting the retail sector.
Another threat is that the central workplaces may no longer be ideal in the case of an outbreak and as such people will be expected to work from home.
Questions, including could this be the end of commercial office buildings begin to arise.
The answer is yes and no. Yes, as in demand will go down and no as there will still be the need for offices for holding other meetings.
So that is another threat towards real estate entities who are in the business of renting out offices.

Q: What would you suggest as solutions to these challenges?
A: As business we are coming from the school of thought that considering the severity of the coronavirus issue, lives are being lost and that we don’t have a treatment yet, when it comes to entities this is supposed to become a board of directors issue.
Directors should be able to take this threat with the seriousness it deserves and not be of the view that people will manage on their own.

Coronavirus is actually a risk to businesses which need to be managed through carefully designed strategies. So, this is basically calling on a review of how businesses operate.
For example, we are used to people gathering in large numbers and when people gather, business will start seeing an opportunity to make money.
But now because of coronavirus, crowds are now actually a risk.
So businesses now have to redefine how they can make money without the crowds.
In terms of the retail space as I highlighted earlier, only a few people will walk into stores to purchase goods as they will be afraid of getting contaminated.
Even after the virus, people will remain with that stigma — there will be an issue where people do not want to be in crowded spaces.
So as the retail sector there is now an opportunity for e-commerce, where people have to order things online.
Retail shops have to adapt and adopt online shopping in response to the virus.
This then presents new opportunities as there will be a rise in e-commerce, warehousing, distribution and logistics or last mile delivery services.
If you look at the first world countries, these things have been happening, that’s why we have Amazon or e-bay.
Those things in Zimbabwe seem far-fetched, but now businesses need to look at such ways of doing business in the wake of the coronavirus.
So, that’s how people need to start thinking and looking at the opportunities and challenges. We now need to look at people who own property.
Retail has been known to attract the highest rentals, but now it’s going to be warehouses.
People who have strategically located warehouses will be needed for quick delivery of goods to consumers.
Now we move on to the commercial sector in terms of offices. Because we are saying people should work from home, this then redefines the workspace.
Once there is an outbreak of the virus people will work from home to reduce traffic at work.
Gone are the days when we used to think that smart phones are for the rich and famous. These things are tools of trade.
People will need smart phones and laptops and access to data is now a requirement.
This even translates to a paradigm shift in terms of the construction of homes whereby people need to create work spaces at home.
Let us also imagine schools and universities — online training is now a must. This requires the necessary gadgets, including laptops, smart phones and access to data.
This also presents an opportunity for internet companies who will be needed to install fibre cables at people’s homes so that they can access the internet and do their work.
What it means is that companies will have to take the costs of setting up all of this in place of office space or rentals.
The other issue is around the government because people will still need to access government services.
If you look at Dubai, for instance, they have e-government services and everything is available online.
We are saying that people should not gather in huge numbers, but when you look at our passport offices we have hundreds of people there daily seeking travel documents.
So, it means the government has to rethink and start operating online so that people don’t have to go all the way to government offices.
That will assist in dealing with corruption. We hear of a lot of corruption happening, for instance, at passport offices. If everything is electronic it minimises facial interaction and consequently, corruption.
Looking at issues to do with transport, our roads are congested because we have many people coming into town for work.

But if we have fewer people coming into town it means that there will be less congestion. It means there will be a reduction in terms of the cost of importing fuel on the government’s part.

The foreign currency which was difficult for us to get and was going towards fuel will now be channelled towards other pertinent things.
It can be channelled towards electricity because when people are working from home they need 24-hour availability of electricity.
So we need the government to intervene and ensure there is unlimited supply of electricity.
This might actually start increasing production because with online work we are able to track what has been done.
Right now people just come to work to register their presence, but don’t produce anything.
When people are now submitting their output via the internet from home it’s easy to analyse production because technology does not lie.
Coronavirus has just redefined the kind of focus that we need to have.
The world is now shifting towards technology and as Zimbabwe, we should not be left behind.
The way we are going to progress even after this disease has to be different. For businesses to survive in the coronavirus era, a paradigm shift is a must.
This also calls for safety and health issues to be given serious attention at the work premises.

Q: In what ways do you think these opportunities and solutions can work for business in rural areas, given the lack of infrastructure development there or are these solutions only targeted at the urban population?
A: In rural areas people are not as crowded as they are in urban areas. So the density becomes a challenge.
However, this calls for an investment in infrastructure development in rural areas.
The government really needs to play its part there.
This will also help people in rural areas to access e-government services and to even order goods online.

Q: Given the difficult economic conditions in Zimbabwe, where will business get the money to restructure how they do business?
A: It’s a matter of prioritising these issues, coming up with budgets and ways to raise the funds.
If that is not done, then businesses risk sinking. It is up to the directors to assess the situation and see the risks associated with it and come up with a way forward.
We have no confirmed case in Zimbabwe, but we need to plan ahead and prepare for possible implications.
Businesses are supposed to accept the reality of different situations and still be able to meet the needs of their customers and that can only be done through adopting adaptive and flexible strategies.

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